In Defence of Stamps


Sometimes it’s the little things in life that make the difference. There was a time when I would check the post every morning in the hope that there would abe a letter for me. I would ask my mother why was there never anything for me, and wistfully she would respond “well if you sent a letter to someone then maybe you would get something in return”. My obvious response was to drop my shoulders and curl my nose and skulk off muttering about some injustice or something.

I didn’t realise it until probably now that my mother’s response was probably something similar to what I know now. Personal letters or emails are wonderful, but they rarely come, or at least their infrequency is dwarfed by the sheer quantity of spam and bills. And even if I jump to the twenty-first century and talk about emails it doesn’t get much better, in fact it worsens.

Throw into your inbox all your newsletters, online transactions, receipts, work related mail, social network updates and notifications, and whatever else streams in between nine and six daily, and probably continues throughout the night if you recieve mail from across the timezones, email loses all the charm it had, if it ever actually had any in the first place.

I’ve come across a few articles recently where someone disconnected from their email for a year and found out how wonderful the world is, or something to that effect. There are also countless amounts of surveys or reports proclaiming the effects and costs laid on the corporate world from people checking and responding to overburdened email accounts.

I should also elaborate on the state of my email inbox at the moment, with over 3,600 unread emails and counting, many of which will not change or improve my life if they ever are opened. This amount started to grow from about six months ago when I suppose I just got tired of deleting them. There may be some important mail in there I should have read, but if it was really important they would have emailed back, right?

Sure enough you could argue that social networking has removed our need to email so frequently, and of course email has removed the necessity of writing letters, just regulary mail services removed whatever messenger network was there before. Perhaps there is someone out there busily considering the medium to overtake social networking, and good luck to them.

For all our complaints about social networking though it won’t go away, and neither will email, and incidentally neither will regular mail. We will see how and why we use these forms of communication change though, and some day we will be as nostalgic for old-fashioned tweeting or email writing as we are now for a hand written letter.

Modernity and modernising has always been about making it easier and more efficient to do things. To compliment everything modern there is always the old way, deemed in some respects old fashioned and antiquated as equally as it is is considered traditional or vintage. Speed and efficiency is undoubtedly the defining and divisive factor in establishing the difference.

Who is to say that there is actually anything wrong with, for example hand writing a letter, walking down to the post office, queuing up to buy a stamp, and then popping it in the post box, and heading off to finish the rest of your business? Compare this to standing on a bus grasping a railing one hand as it trundles through town, whilst tapping uncomfortably the tiny letters on the screen of a smartphone, including the backspace repeatedly, and clicking send, whereupon your email is sent directly to its recipient who is likely to be experiencing something similar in another part of the planet. Either that or it will be waiting for them when they wake up in the morning.

20131018-144625.jpg

Speed is everything. Even more important than money, seemingly, because somehow the idea that time equals money has proliferated and began obliterating everything that once stood for something, and by something I mean a person’s job and livelihood. Nostalgia is making mighty waves promoting the way things were and how the world was better before we had a full communication suite trapped inside a small black device which fits into our pocket. Conveniently, there’s a fair amount of nostalgia available online, or at least you can book it or order it online. How fortunate are we?

There is a tremendous amount of modern speed which does seem unnecessary. In Korea, I feel like every building over three floors must have a lift, buses bull through red lights, there is ultra fast internet for all users, deliveries are made at low cost and arrive the next day, and there is one of the fastest high speed rail systems in the world in a country where it only takes five hours to drive from one corner to its furthest extremity on the opposite side of the peninsula. Yes, I know that the clogged expressways undoubtedly encouraged this development, but they’re not always clogged. Speed equals progress, development, and of course convenience. This is good and the goal we should be setting for all of ourselves.

Don’t think that I’m critical of Korea here, a similar list could be drawn up about any country. In Korea and especially Seoul it seems that everyone and everything has to be where they should be now, and not tomorrow, and certainly not soon or over the next few days. Seoul is the only major city I’ve lived in so I can’t reasonably compare it fairly, but I’ve heard enough comparisons with such poster cities as London and New York to recognise the same obsessions with this instant. For all I may feign complaint over, the convenience of Korea is by far its most redeeming factors after living here for over eight years.

But let me ask you would you go back to slower and less convenient times? I wouldn’t. It’s not solely because I have a recognisable addiction to things been done instantly, or because of the convenience, or the cheaper cost, it’s because it’s better. Whether we are better people is an unnecessary observation, as again nostalgia feeds on these grievances. For all that I or others may raise about a modern obsession with speed, I don’t see myself slowing down, let alone stopping.

What I would do though is ask myself or others to think a little about what is really necessary? For starters, much of the devotion to doing things quick stems from the time is money notion I mentioned earlier. To do things quicker and more efficiently will save us more money in the long run, right? Well in many respects yes, but at the same time this is not always the case.

Take stamps for example. Mail or post is in its own right a fairly new phenomenon, and while the effort of writing a letter and posting may be considerably less efficient and signicantly more time consuming, it already seems to be becoming a redundant service that is poorly equipped to compete with the efficiency of email and multi-facetted social networks. Barcodes instead of stamps do little to help this cause.

If you want to post something you need a stamp. This something could indeed be a letter, but it is more likely to be some kind of a form, application, or parcel, but still you need to pay for it and since the Penny Black the preferred way has been to use a stamp, although of late some innovative soul discovered that barcodes are much more effective.

20131018-144609.jpg

I’m sure there is some reason for utilising barcodes as a means of determining the price of postage, and I suppose it’s probably a smart reason, right? I think though that maybe the world would feel a little less like a factory floor if we had less barcodes and numbers defining so much of our lives. Mail is such a small thing that perhaps we could be left enjoyed one of its redeeming traits, the small intricately painted and uniquely designed stamp.

At all corners there are numbers and codes pigeon-holing us. The favoured tool of streamlining our bureaucracy, giving a number not only makes us easily findable amongst the rest of the rabble, it removes the face of its owner, leaving if we’re lucky a male or female looking silhouette behind the digits.

Now comparing the barcode for a stamp with an national ID number is a bit severe I admit it, but I hasten to add that I don’t see any problem with regular old stamps. There was something to them which if anything make our connection with mail or post a little more tenable. They had a connection with not only the sender, but also the receiver.

There is a little more than nostalgia attached to this notion that stamps have a bit more attachment to people than barcodes. There is a novelty to them, and not just from the perspective of a stamp collector, from the point of view that we can try to make out the details, however intricate, of a stamp. We can see a little something that is special to another country. We can read the script and possibly have an idea what the currency is, and of course there is the feeling that it was not applied by a machine in a dark basement. Let’s be honest, when it comes to stamps there’s always that human element we can all recall, the taste of the glue on our tongues from licking the back.

The stamp has more personality in its own personalised way. In Ireland stamps come across as a celebration of the nation, which is odd for a country which doesn’t flaunt its patriotism as much as you may imagine, with pictures of flowers, birds, animals, historical figures, architecture, and indeed special events and occasions such as the Special Olympics, and fortunately never (or perhaps rarely) living politicians.

20131018-144635.jpg

It’s unfortunate that in Korea I haven’t seen a stamp since I was here in my first year in 2005 when I tried to send some postcards home. The stamps were small Rose of Sharon, the national flower of Korea, bright in their purpleness and backed by green leaves, and as typical a stamp as you could get. Some years later I went to send Christmas cards home, and each individual envelope was popped up on the scales, and a barcode sticker with its varieties of code was printed out and stuck on the top corner.

Much of this only sank home recently when I received and sent plenty of letters and parcels. I felt that, here was a little way of sharing the rest of the world. But at the same time it was a way of keeping a small industry and interest in the world alive, where we would be encouraged to look at the finer details of the wrapping of the objects which arrive in our letterboxes.

There is little argument against it, other than speed, perhaps. Yet, if you want to take it from the perspective of the consumer or the sender, you can be sure that when they go to the post office they still must queue up, and they still must put their letter on a scales, and the person will probably still tap a few things on a computer, if anything just to get a receipt.

Stamps are little things, but when we add up all the small things we find we have something greater. Efficiency will not make the world a better place, and in changing through development we often forget to stop and look at what it is we are changing. Stamps are small and insignificant but like most of the things which change without us knowing it will be long after they are gone that we notice we can’t tell one barcode apart from the next one.

Advertisements

The Koreans of Europe


No two cultures are the same but every one is similar, right? You could certainly say that about much of Europe, where thousands of years of breeding, trading, warring, traveling, and sharing across ever-shifting borders has caused a mixology of international characteristics of which one can be difficult to discern from the other.

In Asia, it is a little more difficult to separate the differences because the continent has suffered less fluctuation of its borders, and in terms of today’s map, colonialism for the most part decided on today’s borders. But still you can throw in the changes, regardless of actual influence, of international trade, development, colonialism, the sharing of ideas, television, and migration, and the wind at the weekend if you wish, and you will soon realise the stark similarities between peoples and cultures there.

Now that might seem like a simple notion, and it is, but if you take away cliché comparisons such as the idea that your culture and my culture are very musical, or that we have a distinct cuisine, or family is central to the social contract, then you have to get off your armchair and take a look a little closer.

When I first came to Korea from Ireland I was fascinated by the notion that the Koreans were called by someone as the Irish of the east. I thought to myself as I spent more time here that this was something to connect me with the country, that it was something stronger than the bonds which other nationalities might ascribe to their connections with Korea. But those reasons for which Korea is lauded for its Irishness really didn’t appear to be that strong.

Of course there are very strong reasons for calling Koreans the Irish of the east, such as our tenacity for drinking, our colonial history, the fact our country is divided by a significant border, we’re stuck between two significant world powers, we both have a distinct national cuisine, and we’ve a social structure which focuses on both age and gender hierarchies… oh wait forget the other two.

You see, the whole comparison thing between Ireland and Korea seems to be done by someone who sat down with Wikipedia one day and got this notion into their head that Ireland and Korea are very similar. I suppose they are in some respects but in many respects they are far from complimentary. For example if you considered the alcohol consumption aspect you run into problems. Anyone who has ever drank knows that there is an etiquette to drinking, sometimes very formalised and other times apparently informal, but there is always a way to drink. When we think about drinking, in countries that drink a lot, how we drink and what drink is far more important than how much (because we already know that’s a fair amount).

Now if you’ll excuse me if I turn to some reliable Wikipedia statistics. In terms of thirst Ireland and Korea are ranked quite closely together , but you can’t help but notice that Ireland is not the only country on the top half of that list with a dark history linked with its geopolitical situation. Yes, being fond of a drink is a stereotype both countries fall into, but it is by no means an exclusive club, and if anything it hardly characterises the entire culture and people (but in fairness it probably does).

There are of course many similarities between the people of Ireland and Korea. In the same respect, similarities exist across the entire planet and to single them out as unique to Korea and Ireland, or indeed only to Ireland and to Korea would be selling things a little short.

Take for example Italy, or indeed Italians. For the past four weeks I’ve been teaching Italian high-school students in a summmer camp just outside of Dublin. This isn’t the first time I’ve done it, and if I do come back to Ireland for the summer I use this work as a means of earning a little pocket money for the adventure. It’s generally good fun, and interesting from a teacher’s perspective to meet students from another country where English is also considered very important for university and employment prospects.

20130811-230836.jpg

A building on the university campus where I taught for four weeks under typically Irish summer skies.

First impressions present Italians as completely the opposite as Korean students. They are lively, opinionated, and vocal, very vocal. The stereotype of a Korean high school student is anything but this, and I come across the remnants of their much discussed experience in the university students I teach. They are generally shy, reserved, and for the most part quiet, very quiet.

Now I recall that when I was in university that we were also quiet but that was probably more out of fear that we would be asked a question. We were not afraid that we might get the question wrong, but because we knew we would have no idea of the answer to the question asked. Anyone who ever took a foreign language class in secondary school probably cannot recall the classroom being abuzz with Irish/French/Spanish/German/whatever. I think that this is probably close to the same case with the majority of Korean English language students.

Yes, for a person who goes from teaching very quiet and reserved students to a class of lively and mostly enthusiastic students, with the added benefit of being western (even more western than myself I’d hasten to add) it is easy to offer immediate stark contrasts, many of which are likely to have been formed from well established national stereotypes. I’m sure if I stood at a bar in Itaewon or Haebangchon and professed that in fact Koreans were not that different from Italians, and they were in fact more like Italians than actual Irish, I would be shouted down for such a ludicrous assertion.

Before I go into detail here, please take into account my experiences. Firstly and most importantly, I don’t really know Italians in any way as well as I know Irish or Korean people. Most of my experience with Italians stems from teaching them over a number of summers in fairly relaxed situations, and I’ve never even visited Italy, let alone lived there, like I have being doing in Korea since 2005. I think that it’s also important to explain about the students I have been teaching; for the most part they all appear to be middle class, relatively well schooled teenagers, mostly of high-school age as far as I could discern. With these things in mind please ascribe your own prejudice to the study sample.

Anyway, this isn’t a scientific expose, but more a reflection on my past experience teaching Italians in Dublin on my summer holidays, which may also have some significance as you read this words. I did come across some worthwhile comparisons which allude to national character more so than the demographics and historical comparisons which plague Irish-Korean analysis.

At the top of the pile has to be food. Now don’t expect me to give a foodie’s detailed description of each respective nationality’s cuisine. That’s near impossible for me, for now at least. What is significant is that each country is obsessed with food (yeah I know, what’s the big deal?) but more importantly, with their own national cuisine. It could be reasonably argued that a large portion of each country’s economy is powered by its tenacity for its own cuisine. Ireland, unless you count the local chipper on a weekend night, would not fit in here.

I know how good and how diverse Korean food is, and while it may have its critics there is little doubt in how much Koreans miss Korean food when they leave the country. Yes, we can all poke fun at the flocks of ajjumma with instant noodles and gochujang stuffed into their suitcases as they travel, but can you blame them when much of what they know in terms of food is Korean food (and Chinese take-away). Expecting them to revolutionise over the space of one-flight, probably in a tour group full of similar minded folk, is probably asking to much. Anyway, they’re happy so what does it really matter?

It’s always easy to point the finger at people who do things differently, and especially in Korea where many are particularly reserved. I know that it’s easy to praise younger people who are keen to experience new food from around the world, but again it’s equally easy as one who enjoys variety but dislikes expense to notice that much of the international cuisine enjoyed by many young Koreans is indeed spaghetti with seafood and a cream or tomato sauce, or worse, the evil brunch made up of a sausage, an egg, some salad, and some other concoction. Despite this attempt at snobbery you’ll do well to find Koreans who don’t have a list of Korean dishes they crave after so many days away from a suitable supply, and if all else fails you’re bound to find somewhere to stock up on the always reliable ramyeon. I’d warrant that Italians aren’t that far off, at least the ones I was teaching weren’t.

Now granted that the restaurant in the university they were staying in was far from haute cuisine, which could have influenced their thoughts. but a day didn’t go by without some lamenting for “Italian” pasta, or “Italian” food. Their own food of course, which many will tell is fantastic, and rightly so – much like Korean food – but it still bothers me a little when people who apparently obsess so much over food, when given the opportunity to try something other than the stainless steel served chicken and potato slop they’d been divvied out the first port of call for sustenance in Dublin was either McDonalds or Bugger King.

Travel broadens the mind and when it comes to food this is especially the case. Koreans, in their defence, were not really allowed to travel up until the 1980s, and even then it was not on their own that they all began to encroach on the UNESCO heritage sites of the world. This way of traveling is only slowly leaving the mass conciousness of the the country, and independent travel is becoming a thing, especially for university and post-university aged people who are eager, for the most part, to acquire stronger English and also to have a good time before they end up having to sell their soul to a full-time job.

And I suppose my wonderful Italian students, many of whom had only traveled with their parents (I did a survey) and even then only to neighbouring countries on school excursions or lanugauge exchanges, would be far from an acceptable sample to base my argument on, but I can’t help but find this issue which has been recurring over the past number of years when I have taught Italians in the summer.

20130811-231037.jpg

One of my classes of Italian teenagers from all over Italy, with their certificates of completion…and me, grinning stupidly!

The other area which struck me a bit more thunderbolt like, and is something which is certainly a recognisable trait in Korea, and that’s image.

What always struck me is that the youngsters I’ve taught have always been for the most part, despite the bags under their eyes from self-imposed sleep depravation, very well groomed and image conscious. I won’t say whether they were well dressed or not, but they did obviously take the time to wear what were nice clothes and spend some time fixing their hair in the morning. Now they were teenagers so you can’t expect too much variety from their attire, but that being said even though they were away from their parents they didn’t come in with their clothes hanging off them, unwashed and smelly.

I had a conversation about Irish fashion with these students one day and we went on about how Irish people dressed and whether or not we were considered stylish or not. The general consensus was that it was hard to know because they hadn’t seen too many Irish people, and when they were in Dublin it was hard to know who was Irish and who wasn’t. I told them next time just listen to them.

The conversation developed over the coming days as I tried to get more information from them on their experiences. It turned out that they were impressed by Irish dress sense (not style or fashion mind you). In Italy, I was told, people always had to take into consideration their appearance among others. That their look was always being scrutinised, and that there were in fact many ways to dress in Italy which were socially unacceptable, especially for women. Does this sound familiar to my readers from Korea?

20130811-230911.jpg

My final class of Italian teenagers before they packed their bags and headed back to Italy.

I told them that this was also the case in Korea and I gave them some examples, such as keeping shoulders covered, not showing too much skin or clevage, and some others. These youngs adults explained to me that they were impressed by the general social acceptance of one’s own way of dressing. I explained that sure enough plenty of people probably thought they were stupid looking or whatever, but they empathised that this did not stop them wearing what they wore, and it was accepted that this is how some people dressed in public.

I explained to the Italian students, as I was a little misled at first, that don’t be put off by the people on the street who seem scruffy and who don’t apply as much time in the mirror as they may, they probably spent just as much time making sure they looked suitably unwashed. They understood this, but what was important was that they were allowed to do this.

I know that Herself has expressed the same feelings about living in Ireland also. She enjoys being in Ireland because there is less pressure to dress a particular way, and to meet a certain standard. This is not to say that she dresses less fashionably or doesn’t apply herself with as much care, it’s just that she has more options in the wardrobe than she would have in Korea. Of course image is important for every country, and Ireland is definitely the case.

I found this to be, well honestly, fantastic from an Irish perspective. I don’t think the Irish go out and win too many acclaims from the armchair fashionistas of the world, but too me this seemed to be something to be proud of. Now, I’m sure if they were in another part of Ireland this idea would be slightly less obvious, but still the more I think about it the more likely it is the case….maybe.

I know that in this rather drawn out comparison between Korea and Italy may seem to have holes all over it, and I don’t doubt that my arguments and assertions here are quite week. Let me reiterate, they are mere observations, and I hope when you read this, like when you read anything else I read, it gives you the inclination to search around a little more to find another opinion.

What I will assert though, to conclude, is that if anything my loose comparison here should be seen as a way of firstly drawing attention to the ridiculous notion that two countries would be so alike as to be compared as twins. But more importantly I hope that I can give you a decent example of how similar every human being is, and that despite thousands of miles seperating us our different upbringings and cultures do have similarities which are indistinguishable, and even when that is not the case, the differences are what make being a person interesting. In the end let us forget that all our blood is red.

Essay on Korea’s National Image – “What is Modern Korea?”


In October I entered an essay competition organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Korea. The competition sought to find out what foreigners thought was Korea’s national image. I entered, you’ll be happy to hear, but not because of some overwhelming desire to share my thoughts on what made Korea Korea, more because top prize was a new computer, and I fancied my chances.

20120831181019639_0O5QW146

So I dutifully brainstormed a notion and worked away on the essay, then forgot about it, then remembered about it, and of course I waited until the last minute to submit it.

Now, it has to be said that I do have issues with this kind of competition (and with everything else of course), because the way I see it is they’re really just kind of clueless about what they think people think about Korea, and for all the polls they make at Incheon Airport they can never get a satisfactory answer. So they tried this essay competition. I never saw the winner announced or published, but I do know of one person who at least won a prize, which was a slight relief. I would like to have read the winning essay, if only to fuel (or extinguish, let’s be fairish) my cynical belief that they were looking for a specific answer, which would have doomed me from the beginning.

*Update* Follow this link to find a press release from MOFAT about the competition and winners

Here it is in its untarnished form (by that I mean I’m copying it straight from the file I sent to them without reading over it and finding a thousand typos and spelling and grammar mistakes, among other faults). Enjoy. Ish.

What is Modern Korea? by Conor O’Reilly
October, 2013

A common decoration in all royal palaces in Korea is a screen which sits behind the king’s throne. While brightly painted, it is a relatively inconspicuous and simple painting that is not too elaborate considering the weight of its position, providing relief to the most important seat in the land, the throne of the King.

The painting on the screen in question includes an orange sun and a white moon, and five mountain peaks that rise and fall sharply and steeply. From these mountains flow waterfalls, and in the foreground tall trees all but complete the scene. There is one final element which is not actually part of the painting but which is still an essential component to the image; the throne and the king who sits in it.

This throne and the king were situated in the centre and symbolised the harmony of the universe and also the crucial fact that the king was the central pivot of this image. Without the king situated in his throne completing the scene with the mountains and the sky, the painting showed a mere landscape, and modern Korea is very much the same as this.

It has to be taken into account that during Chosun Dynasty Korea knowledge of the world beyond its borders would have been extremely limited, and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that for the vast majority of the people living then, Korea was their universe, and the King as their ruler was their representative and the symbol of their own very existence. In this respect the King not only represented the universe, but also the people, and this is of greatest consequence.

Without the people who have made Korea into the country it is today, Korea would also be a landscape deprived of those who have persevered to create their own vibrant and adaptive universe that still relies on traditional relationships, not only among actual family but which even extends to strangers in the street.

And for me it was these very people who appeared to be everywhere I looked the first time my airport bus drove steadily into the centre of Seoul. At first these people were only recognisable through the shape of the many tall apartment buildings which seemingly sprouted up along the banks of the Han River, like copses of trees on the verge of a larger forest.

The bus’s journey deeper into that great big constant bustle of a city transformed my wide perspective to one which seemed to zoom in closer on the finer details of Seoul with every few hundred metres the bus passed. From driving through Yeouido beneath the 63 Building, crossing the Han and seeing rows and rows of more and more of the city, and as the bus looped around it somehow found its way to Jongno-ro, where I was amazed further.

I still marvel at the centre of Seoul today despite living in Korea for several years. I come from a small town in Ireland of around eight thousand people where the tallest building is a church steeple. To come to Seoul and witness a building I always admired for its height dwarfed by all but the smallest of buildings, I was knew I was facing more than just engineering prowess. To achieve such a feat as modern Seoul, a society must have more than just money. It needs pride, determination, and a universal sense of community and understanding to drive them forward.

What really struck me more than anything as I drove through the city on an airport bus for the first time was that I wanted to know who built everything and how could I not know about the city in front of me before? How could this human achievement be missed, and what would it take for such a spectacle of the ability of human beings ability to shine independently? I was younger back then and would soon know that I was arriving late to the story that of the Korean people and this is a story which continues today.

If there is a twenty-first century comparison for all that encapsulates Korea it is Jongno-ro. From Gwangwhamun the street passes east as a busy shopping with nightlife close to Jonggak Station, and then by Insadong presenting a different more subdued style of Seoul. Both of these throb with life under the shadows of the high-rise homes of Korea’s corporate powerhouses, such as Hanwha, SK, and Samsung.

This street that stretches from Gwangwhamun Plaza, watched over by the erstwhile Admiral Yi Sun Shin, to Dongdaemun Gate is only a few kilometres long, but along it you can experience more of Korea than you could in famous locations, such as Psy’s virally renowned Gangnam. There is much history on Jongno-ro, such as Tapgol Park, Korea’s first city park, and of course the internationally recognised Jongmyo Shrine. There is the lively neon lit nightlife side streets which almost every visitor to the capital aspires to photograph.

Jongno-ro runs parallel to Cheongyecheon stream, another honest symbol of a new and modern Korea, yet as it moves east the buildings lose much of their glamour and wealth. Here a different Korea can be seen, an older Korea, one with roots in community. It is one which still retracts to the older ways that life was lived, seen in the crowds ever busy around places like Gwangjang Market, which in itself is a reflection of hundreds more urban markets across the country, where small businesses work together in their own street-side version of a modern day department store. This is as much a part of modern Korea as high-rise glass buildings and multi-national corporations that reside nearby.

As you move down the street the city transforms in all but a few hundred metres of walking. You pass by stores selling everything from cosmetics, traditional clothes, to home lighting, hardware, picture frames, and butchers. Nor can you ignore the ubiquitous gold and jewellery shops which always heave with anxious customers considering varieties of fluorescent dazzled necklaces and rings. There is less glitz, but this is still very much Korea.

Here, the tall exuberant buildings of Gwangwhamun and the teeming and vibrant streets around Jonggak Station are forgotten as you meet an older city, where people have the jackets closed tightly against their chest. Here they walk with less leisure in a bustle to get somewhere to do something. This end of the street as it comes closer and closer to Dongdaemun is a wiser and more cautious part of the city, a part of the city that has seen more of troubled past and lived through these lessons. This part of the city knows that time has passed but it continues to accept change, while still holding on tightly to the ways which established its current situation.

This is not an area which is reluctant to change, it is a place where change will only come when those who populate it no longer need their past, a past suffered by so many through occupation, war, and dictatorship. To see these people is to know Korea and to understand why the Korean people, with their undying spirit of national community, have built one of the strongest and wealthiest economies from the scraps of destitution and bloodshed.

But to suggest that the Korean people are the most unique aspect of the country is pretty much a given. Is it worth reducing to second place all the other magical and unique characteristics that make up Korea? There is the food (which I love), the music – from K Pop to pansori, and all the culture and traditions which families and individuals have built their lives around, but all that I try to compare with the hope of recognising something more noteworthy or more exceptional, it always comes back to the people who developed these cultural and national attributes over the years.

You could also argue that the people are crafted by the landscape and environments they live in, and that these would supersede the importance the people creating their own unique identity. Although this is a reasonable assertion, when you look at the history of Korea the only geographical feature which truly influenced Korea was its position as a peninsula protruding into the sea between China and Japan, a fate which was instrumental in the establishment in Korean’s resilience and modern determination to excel above its self perceived lot. There is no doubt that Korea’s geographical position has both threatened and benefitted its existence over the years. However, as the foreign influence was so slight up until the twentieth century, I contend that it is the doggedness of the people which elevated Korea to its current status and earned the respect across the world in every conceivable area of thought and action.

The determination and resilience of the people is continuously apparent as Korea’s name appears on lists with the worlds finest. In the recent Olympics in London, Korea was placed fifth in the medal rankings ahead of countries such as Germany, France, Australia, and Japan. The Olympic Soccer team recaptured the spirit of the World Cup in 2002 with an epic adventure into the semi-finals of the competition, followed by a clash with old rivals Japan. While on the subject of sport, let’s not forget the fine individual efforts of Kim Yu Na at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and the exciting prospect of Korea hosting this event in 2018.

Korean’s success has extended beyond sports, from politics to business to technology, Korea’s influence has spread across the world, and always guided at the helm by people who recognise the national thirst for excellence reaches beyond the borders of the country. For all that is celebrated about Korea; none would exist without the will of the people, because it is the people who we remember more than anything when we leave Korea.

Both the new Korea, one which is modern and wired with Smartphone’s and the latest Italian fashions, and the old, one where old traditions based around ancestors and lunar patterns still resonate strongly, coexist together. You can see it when you step off the bus in any part of a city or country town, and you can see it when people meet and greet each other in different situations, be it with family, friends, or co-workers. Korea’s people are always aware that it is they who determine their nation’s status, and it is they who determine their future. They know that they have been born on this planet to live together in harmony for the continued prosperity, and they fight tenaciously to do this.

Through my years living and working in Korea, it is this determination and sense of purpose which I have witnessed to be what Korea really stands for; these are what make Korea the land of the Koreans. It is here where you can witness so many characteristics which when they are combined together can only be truly described as Korean.

You see the magnificence of aged palaces, the glitz and wealth of the many cities, the countryside tended to diligently year after year, and success after success on the international stage. These standards are so common that you cannot miss them. They are the traits of a nation, and it is a nation which is proud to blatantly display and espouse its characteristics like a trophy.